Syria's First Lady Wants New Conversation With West

Feb. 6, 2007 — -- Her husband, the president of Syria, is crazy about her. Asma Akhras Al-Assad is the first lady of Syria.

Her Syrian title is "al akilatu al rais" -- simply translated to "the president's wife." But make no mistake, this beautiful, athletic woman is a force for her country's future.

"Good Morning America" anchor Diane Sawyer first saw her at one of her charity projects called Basma, which means "smile" in Arabic. The charity supports a cancer center.

She sent word she was not ready to give on-camera interviews, but greeted the crew warmly and in her perfect British English ventured a statement about the cause.

"A real example of the way that Syrians from all walks of life have come together and taken responsibility and making a real difference in their communities," Assad said.

Later, Sawyer met her at one of her private offices overlooking Damascus at sunset, where the pair sat for two hours, talking about Assad's country in the new century and her life.

She grew up very much part of two worlds. Born in Britain, she is the daughter of a Syrian cardiologist and speaks perfect Arabic, French and Spanish.

After college she says she loved working on Wall Street in New York and in Paris and London as a banker with J.P. Morgan. She was contemplating an MBA at Harvard.

In 2000, she decided to marry a family acquaintance -- a tall quiet man who happened to be Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

After the private wedding, she spent three months out of view, traveling quietly, sometimes anonymously in jeans and a T-shirt, to meet the people of her country, take note of hopes and needs, sit among the farmers to ask about their crops and devise plans for microloans she passionately tries to promote today.

Her official introduction to the world came when she and her husband returned to England to meet the queen.

The couple famously lives in a modest home with three children that they drive to school themselves. They still protect family dinners and even bike through villages. She has already begun programs to excite Syria's children about business and challenge them to compete in a global world.

"She's an amazing woman. Ever since she got here she got deep into things in every single sector," said Thala Khair, founder of a Syrian private school. "As much as she's working for women's rights, she's working on children's rights and culture."

The cancer center where we first met her is breaking ground in Syria -- the private and public sector working together. The children show her pictures they drew in therapy -- drawings with names like "magic."

So while the world debates the intentions of her husband on the world's stage, the two of them remain symbols of a new generation in the Middle East. The former doctor and the former banker were schooled in England, are steeped in Syria and, she might say, are asking the West for a new conversation about a new day.